Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Violence/Terror
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Written by: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Aaron Douglas, Scott Speedman & Christine Ebadi
Bryan Bertino made audiences scream with his simple, but effective home-invasion horror flick THE STRANGERS. Though that film has its detractors and is far from perfect, I vividly remember watching THE STRANGERS in a theater on its opening weekend and it was a crowd experience. Bertino couldn’t keep his high quality going with his disappointing sophomore effort MOCKINGBIRD, which just might be the worst found footage film I’ve ever sat through and that’s a mighty terrible feat. My expectations weren’t exactly high for THE MONSTER (Bertino’s third film) which has a simple premise, generic title, and an okay-at-best trailer. Color me surprised though, because THE MONSTER is horror story that packs scares and emotional gut-punches in equal measure.
Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) is a frustrated 10-year-old who’s had it with her abusive junkie mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan)’s shit. In an effort to live a better life, Lizzy is taking a permanent vacation to her father’s house. This decision is killing Kathy on the inside and she’s trying to make the most of her final mommy-daughter moments. While on a deserted backroad in the middle of a storm, Kathy’s car hits a wolf and spins out of control. Lizzy and Kathy quickly discover that the wolf was actually a meal for a bloodthirsty monster, which has now set its hungry sights set on the two of them.
THE MONSTER mostly takes place on a deserted stretch of wooded backroad. The film did not have a massive budget behind it, but it covers that possibly crutch by regulating its titular beast into the shadows for most of the running time. In fact, it’s a good long while before THE MONSTER’s monster rears its ugly head. This storytelling tactic is rather refreshing though, because that screen time is spent developing the two main characters and amping up the tension in waiting for the inevitable to happen. The character development of this mother-daughter pair also makes everything so much more effective when shit eventually hits the fan.
It certainly helps that the two leading ladies do a phenomenal job with the material. Ella Ballentine seems pretty damn mature for her age and is able to convincingly capture this emotionally damaged daughter’s feelings. Zoe Kazan is also oddly sympathetic as the not-so-great mother. We get glimpses of Kazan’s character in the flashbacks, which paint a pretty damning picture of her. However, Bertino and Kazan still manage make this character into someone worth caring about and (dare I say) rooting for. The pairing of Ballentine and Kazan really helped sell this B-movie-sounding material. THE MONSTER’s script is a simple creature feature that happens to have a ton of well-written family drama placed into its core.
Where THE MONSTER encounters a few problems are in its creature design. While Bertino wisely keeps his beastie off-screen for as long as possible, he does reveal far too much of it in certain moments. The titular antagonist basically looks like a buffed-up version of Zuul from GHOSTBUSTERS. While there are a few tense scenes of it attacking folks, these are mostly shown in bits of quick editing and the full-blown views of buff Zuul…er, I mean, THE MONSTER’s monster that look too silly. These out-of-place campy bits aren’t enough to detract from the film’s rock-solid acting, slick cinematography, and creepier less-is-more attitude. However, the full-blown shots of the monster stick out like a sore thumb.
Overall, THE MONSTER shocked me. I wasn’t expecting too much from this film, but received a well-acted, mostly well-executed horror story that had an emotional core as its driving force. Despite its generic title, THE MONSTER’s main focus isn’t its monster. Instead, this is a story about a mother and daughter caught in a terrifying situation that happens to involve a monster. The plot also plays out in an almost fairy-tale-esque manner that may make a few viewers shed a tear or two. If you’re into that sort of thing, THE MONSTER is well worth a look!